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The 2020 Public Services Trust Blog

Monday, June 22, 2009

The Trident Trade-Off

By Henry Kippin

Sarah Tusa writes in the Times today on the thorny problem of Trident – which crosses our path frequently as an example of a ‘quick-win’ initiative for those looking to cut the fat from public spending. David Davis wrote about this in the FT in April, following a pre-Budget publication from think tank Reform. He argued that

“There is no firmer advocate of nuclear deterrence than me, but even I have some difficulty seeing the justification for a wholesale upgrade of Trident. Our system was designed to maintain retaliatory capacity after a full-scale Soviet nuclear onslaught. Now our likeliest nuclear adversary will be a much smaller, less-sophisticated state. Should not the costs reflect that?”

Maybe so, writes the defence consultant, but there are serious trade-offs to think through in scrapping the proposed Trident upgrade, as today’s article makes clear. First is the question of how much such a move would actually save, and how this compares to other large-scale (and seemingly more worthy) initiatives:

“Estimates of £30 billion and over … combine the capital cost…with the annual operating costs for a 25-30 year life… On the same basis, a comparable civil project, the 953-bed Norfolk & Norwich University Hospital will cost not £229 million, as announced in 1998…but £16 billion, including PFI charges, staff and equipment. Any debate should at least be on an apples-to-apples basis.”

The second trade-off is about global status. Tusa’s argument is that failing to replace Trident would relegate the UK to the status of a “second-rank” European country, raising the spectre of losing its seat on the UNSC. On top of this, jobs are at stake – “at least 15,000…could depend on the Trident replacement.”

Whatever the politics of the piece (and I am certainly not convinced by some of it), we should welcome a more sophisticated debate about the choices that face the next Government. There will always be difficult trade-offs to negotiate, and it is bordering on the disingenuous to suggest that ‘quick wins’ are possible even for controversial initiatives such as Trident or ID cards. As the author warns, “there are no easy cuts left in defence”. But wherever the axe falls across Government spending, none of it will be easy.

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Posted by Henry Kippin at 9:56 am
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